Work and Ecclesiastes
Qoheleth (“the teacher” of Ecclesiastes) did some of the most significant work of his day:
“I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees…”
From public works to sprawling homes, Qoheleth was a builder. Yet he found his work utterly meaningless.
“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
He hated life, despite enormous professional success and wealth. What could lead to this gnawing despair? He goes on to explain:
“I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.”
After amassing wealth and professional success, he realized that all he had accumulated would be left to someone else – gardens, homes, money, flocks, all of it. His work led to despair because he originally saw it as a means to accumulation. Working only for money, homes, or public prestige led to despair when he began to consider his looming death. He could not take all his money with him after death; what had he ultimately gained?
Qoheleth, however, recognized there was another way of looking at work that led to happiness.
“People can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in all their toil. This, too, I see is from the hand of God.”
There are two view of work operating here, one that leads to despair, the other that leads to life.
(1) Work is primarily a means to accumulating wealth. We work for big 401(k)s, new cars, second homes, and flat screen TVs. These are the real goals, why we take certain jobs and work overtime.
(2) Work has inherent value, and can be enjoyable in itself. Here, we work to make something beautiful, excellent, and worthwhile – to meet a real need of our neighbor.
I recently had a conversation with a friend who spent time in New York City. “In New York,” he said, “People live to work.” People move to New York to work – and achieve. In Denver, however, the attitude is different. “Here people work, but mostly just in anticipation of the weekends. This city, so in love with the outdoors and the mountains, is based on recreation. Work is just what we have to get to the slopes (on the 10k race) on the weekends.”
In NYC, work itself can become an idol – a source of meaning and identity. In Denver, work more closely approximates the view that led Qoheleth to despair. Work is a means for accumulation, in our case, to recreate on the weekends.
The biblical story tells the story of a God who does 6 days of joyful, satisfying work, and rests on 1 day. We find our peace at work when we work hard, and do work of inherent value (not just monetary value), for 6 days, and yet never make it an idol by obeying the command to cease work for a day.
Discussion question: Which view is more prevalent in your field: work as a means for accumulation, or work as inherently valuable?